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Time management for academics


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Graduate students and faculty are perpetually busy—and they always seem to be behind. How can they effectively manage their time and projects? In this presentation, I discuss the principle of mediation, discussing how nine levels of strategies can help us manage the complex demands on our time.

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Time management for academics

  1. 1. Time management for academics Clay Spinuzzi,
  2. 2. Me, in grad school: “I’m supposed to have a paper drafted next week?!?”* *true story
  3. 3. I got better. It resulted from a systematic approach to productivity that leverages mediation (Vygotsky 2012). Our actions are mediated— controlled by outside—by physical and psychological tools. We can improve and focus our actions by designing and deploying such tools. But it didn’t happen overnight.
  4. 4. As tasks get more complex... ● … you need more complex systems to handle them. Let’s think about these in terms of levels. Each level builds on the last, allowing you to handle more complexity— Even though you aren’t (necessarily) getting any smarter.
  5. 5. Level 0: Remembering things ● Example: Put out the garbage every Wednesday night. We do this in early childhood. It’s often unmediated. Unfortunately, the more tasks you have to remember, the harder it is to keep on top of them
  6. 6. Level 1: Doing things right away ● Example: Clearing your dishes from the table right after dinner. This strategy works well when you’re processing information serially, with time after each assignment. Thus its success depends on how well other people have structured events around you.
  7. 7. Level 2: Creating an interruptor ● Example: Tying a string around your finger. Interruptors are a basic form of mediation, allowing yourself to control your own future actions. They work well when the task is short and easily accomplished, and when the interruption comes at a time that you can address the task.
  8. 8. (Levels 0-2 are reactive) They work as organized responses, but … they don’t associate clusters of related tasks, prioritize tasks, or plan actions.
  9. 9. Level 3: Make a list ● Example: Grocery list Lists require literate tools and the ability to see relationships between things. We begin using them some time after we learn how to write. They work best when broken down into short tasks you can accomplish in a few moments each.
  10. 10. Level 4: Attach tasks to information ● Example: Writing tasks on a draft. This step comes sometime after lists. Here, you’re juxtaposing two types of information, one of which can be a trigger for the other. For instance, when you pick up the draft, you’ll be reminded of the changes you need to make.
  11. 11. (Levels 3-4 are relational) They help you to associate tasks with each other and with related information. They help you to envision clusters of tasks. But, by themselves, they don’t prioritize, nor do they project into the future.
  12. 12. Level 5: Organize and prioritize a list ● Example: Different highlighters to indicate different levels of severity in a list of draft revisions. Once you learn how to use basic lists, you may begin to distinguish not just between tasks, but between categories of tasks. Lists can be sequenced and prioritized, allowing you to follow an order (sequence) and to triage tasks (priority)
  13. 13. (Level 5 introduces hierarchy and sequence) Thus it lets you decompose tasks and see their relationships over time and in terms of importance. You begin to mediate your behavior in different ways, and you begin to make more conscious decisions about how to execute clusters of tasks.
  14. 14. Level 6: calendar a task list ● Example: A weekly review (see GTD) Here, an interruptor coordinates with a list, resulting in chronological planning. You set up a reminder to guide your own tasks. Thus you begin to plan ahead in time: not just sequence, but definite moments.
  15. 15. Level 7: Define and schedule projects ● Example: Project management system or project spreadsheet Here, you combine multiple mediatory strategies: lists, task decomposition, task priority, and calendar (sequence). You can describe relationships across tasks; plan how long they will take; and identify choke points. You have visualized complex relationships among time, tasks, and priorities.
  16. 16. (Levels 6-7 allow you to own your time and plan in detail) You can plan into the far future for a given project. You can visualize an abstract concept: time. You can identify choke points and determine whether delays will cascade across the rest of the project.
  17. 17. Level 8: Interconnect planning system ● Example: Coordinating your project management and calendar by blocking out time to execute tasks At this point, you can look across planning systems to coordinate macro-level projects (ex: writing a book) with immediate tasks (ex: edit chapter 1 from 9-11am on Thursday). Your mediational strategies have allowed you to relate complex abstractions.
  18. 18. (Level 8 introduces flexibility) At this point, you can spot holes in your planning, prioritize projects, and shift around efforts. You can also adjust timelines based on unexpected contingencies.
  19. 19. Level 9: Establish and review career goals ● Example: Writing a “vision” of where you want to be in 5 (or 10 or 50) years At this point, you can plan even farther ahead, examining long- term projects for compatibility with your career goals. Does this book help you toward a 5-year goal (ex: tenure), a 10-year goal (ex: presence in a field), and a 50-year goal (ex: a lasting contribution)?
  20. 20. (Level 9 allows you to prune and cohere efforts long-term) Now you have the tools to decide whether a project makes sense with your long-term trajectory. You can kill low-yield projects. You can envision how a step in one project could also contribute to other projects.
  21. 21. Systems (and my examples) Calendar (ex: Google Calendar) Searchable info dump (ex: Google Keep, Google Drive) Project management (ex: Google Sheets) Task decomposition (also on Google Sheets) Big view (on big paper) Career goals (updated monthly in a Google Doc)
  22. 22. "Big paper" on my office wall. Top: Publications schedule. Green= accepted, yellow= in progress, pink= rejected. Bottom: connections between publications (It’s ugly, but it works.)
  23. 23. Task management in Google Sheets. Status: Red= late, Yellow= in progress, green= don't work on yet, strikethrough= done. Start/End: range of dates. Other tabs= other aspects of scheduled tasks.
  24. 24. Info dump in Google Keep. Status: Red= to do, Blue= research, Orange= Teaching, admin.
  25. 25. Setting up cross- system reviews Set a review time and keep it (ex: once a week) Review progress first Then plan: align projects, big view, goals, calendar Remember that your planning is a "flight plan"; you can shift items around to address contingencies.
  26. 26. For further reading Allen, D. (2003). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York: Penguin Books. Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Vygotsky, L. S. (2012). Thought and language, 3ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.